Nelson Rolihlala Mandela passed away on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95.
He leaves behind a lasting legacy of determined struggle against discrimination and oppression, for liberty and justice. The plunder and enslavement of Africa, in a sense, laid the foundations of the modern capitalist world as we know it today. When Nelson Mandela waged his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it is important to remember that the apartheid regime enjoyed the support of the very countries that wage war and occupation in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberation.’ Mandela will be remembered primarily as an icon of the protracted struggle for justice, equality and liberation, of the undying spirit of resistance.
An account of Mandela’s eventful journey of 95 years is recorded in his autobiography titled “Long Walk to Freedom”. Mandela was not only the spearhead of South Africa’s freedom struggle, but also a living memorial to the struggle against racism, colonial loot, and hypocrisy. His life symbolized the fighting spirit of marginalized and oppressed peoples all over the world in the 20th century and their road to progress in the 21st century. Jailed for 27 years on charges of subversion and treason, he spent the early years of imprisonment in an 8x7ft. room at the jail in Robben Island, suffering the lashes and abuses of the jail wardens, doing hard labour breaking stones, and working in lime quarries. In 1985 he underwent a prostate operation and in 1988 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis but this did not deter him from holding fasts and strikes to better the conditions of the prisoners, and to turn prison into a university for fighters.
Of those countries which won freedom from colonial powers between 1945 and 1965, very few could chart a course of independence after the colonial devastation they had been subjected to. Mandela’s leadership was significant in that it saved South Africa from this tragedy. The white rulers stayed in South Africa for a long time lured by the gold and diamond wealth of that country. Where most colonies got freedom between 1945 and 1965, colonial loot persisted for a long time in South Africa despite long and brave struggles, because of support from imperialist powers like America and England, which is why Mandela’s struggles also took on epic proportions. Perhaps no other freedom struggle had a leader who made his country’s freedom an issue of human conscience on an international scale, as Mandela did.
By 1951 Mandela had emerged as a leader who consolidated the non-white Africans, the Indian community and the Communist Party into a joint front as an essential tool for African independence in the form of the African National Congress. Not for no reason was he arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1952. At the age of 24-25 Mandela first worked as a watchman in a coal mine in Johannesburg and later, through the association with Walter Sisulu, as a clerk in a law firm. At these workplaces he came into contact with Communists and was much impressed with their meetings where he found no discrimination between people of European, African, Indian and mixed races. In many colonized countries including India, Communists adopted the strategy of working within nationalist parties for the freedom movement; South Africa’s freedom struggle was the best experience of this. From the widespread mine workers’ strike in 1946 to the building of an armed organization like “Umkhonto We Sizwe” in 1961, the African National Congress and the Communist Party of South African worked with exemplary unity.
It was Mandela who ensured the democratic integration based on equality of all components within the African National Congress including the Communists, standing firm against voices which were opposed to this. In 1955 the African National Congress held a Conference in Kliptown along with the South African Indian Congress, the South African Trade Union Congress, Congress of Democrats and Congress of Coloured Peoples, where 3000 people participated. The Freedom Charter for the future democratic, non-racist African self rule which was passed in this Conference was prepared by Rusty Bernstein, a leader in the already banned Communist Party. The police came down hard on the Conference, but by then it was already successful under Mandela’s leadership.
One of the reasons for Mandela’s incarceration for 27 years from 1964 to 1990 was that Reagan, Thatcher and others considered him a Communist militant and only after the disintegration of the Eastern bloc in 1989 did the imperialists of the world think it safe to give the green signal for his release. In 1985 and 1988 the white rulers told Mandela that they would release him on condition that he eschewed violence, stopped asked for majority rule, and cut off all relations with the Communist Party. Mandela refused to agree to any of these conditions. He saw no contradiction in violence and non-violence as a strategic means. Mandela’s beliefs echoed Nagarjun’s words in ‘Harijan Gatha’ (1977), “Violence and non-violence are sisters who will not clash with each other”.
Once Mandela and the ANC formed Government, the Communist Party criticized his continuance of the policy of economic liberalization and his refusal to nationalize banks, gold mines and lands, in keeping with the changed international balance of power. In 1996 Mandela reorganized South Africa into 9 States and implemented a new Constitution, addressing various issues like land reform, poverty eradication, investment in health, education and employment, finding solutions to internal differences and even violent clashes. In June 1999 he voluntarily stepped down from the post of President and announced political retirement in 2004. Meanwhile, he did not hesitate to condemn America and other imperialist countries for the Iraq war.
In 1993, delivering the opening address to the COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) Special Congress, Mandela addressed the question uppermost in the minds of the 1700 worker delegates: ‘Will the ANC sell-out the workers?’ He said:
“I fully believe the ANC will never betray the cause of democracy, the cause of the workers. We have a track record in which we have worked closely with workers’ movements. But your defence is not just the ANC, it is you, the workers yourselves. It is you who must take the defence of your rights, your aspirations in your own hands.
“How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers, and at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world. ...It is only if the workers strengthen their organisation before and after liberation... if you relax your vigilance, you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain.
“You must support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods, if the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.
“The South African Communist Party, as well, must not be complacent. I do not think we will ever betray the South African Communist Party. It has been our ally for more than 70 years, we have fought and suffered together, our comrades have died together. Many of them remained in the battlefield and never returned. I don’t think with such a tradition, with such a background, it is possible for the ANC ever to betray the South African Communist Party....
“But, it will be foolhardy for the South African Communist Party to become complacent and to rely exclusively on the bone fides of the ANC.
“Who ever knew that the Soviet Union would disappear? Who ever knew that the eastern democracies would disappear from the scene, and become something totally different from a socialist society? That is an experience which requires the SACP and its leadership not to be complacent.
“It is only if all the partners of the tripartite alliance take the defence of democracy in their own hands and co-operate with the broad democratic movement in that capacity.
This alliance is here to stay ... It is this alliance, and not De Klerk, it is this alliance that is going to liberate you, and that is why we must prepare very, very efficiently, very effectively for the 27th of April, and make it in theory and in practice the day of liberation.”
In August 2012, at Marikana, 44 mine-workers were massacred when police opened fire on striking workers of the mining corporation Lonmin, successor of the colonial and apartheid-era corporation Lonrho. The incident underlined the very question of using and betraying the working class movement that Mandela had addressed. The fact was that Mandela’s assurances notwithstanding, the ANC had increasingly moved rightward, away from its left-wing roots, towards neoliberal and World Bank imposed policies. And the massacre of black mine-workers by armed police – an action defended by the ANC, the SACP and the COSATU – were a grim reminder that the legacy of apartheid included not just racial segregation but, equally, corporate plunder and severe repression, and this legacy is not a thing of the past in South Africa ruled by the ANC-led coalition Government, and its communist and trade union allies. Mandela’s political personality not only gave the African national Congress a social democratic character, but also brought to it recognition as a Party which gave representation to all groups, races, women, men, and homosexuals. Mandela’s successor Other than Fidel Castro (who was an inspiration for Mandela), no political personage commanded greater moral authority among the marginalized peoples of the world.